The new iPhone SE is a shockingly good value

Image: Apple

Yesterday, Apple announced the new $399 iPhone SE. The TL;DR appears to be really simple: the iPhone 8’s body, the iPhone 11’s processor, and the iPhone XR’s camera system with a few new capabilities. I’ll obviously wait to review this phone to tell you if it’s any good, but assuming Apple lives up to its usual standards I can tell you something right away:

At $399, the second-generation iPhone SE is a shockingly good value.

The most important thing to know about the SE’s value proposition is simply that it has the A13 Bionic processor, which is bar-none the fastest processor you can get on any smartphone at any price, full stop. You could spend $1,449 on a fully maxed-out iPhone 11 Pro Max and it wouldn’t be faster than the iPhone SE. You could spend $1599.99 on a maxed-out Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G and it would be theoretically slower (with the exception of 5G downloads).

This isn’t just a matter of processor megahertz per buck, it’s a matter of the longevity of the phone itself. More than any other phone company, Apple supports its phones for a very long time. Since this iPhone SE has the most modern processor available, it’s quite likely that it will receive software updates for many years to come.

Hell, Apple even did the right thing with storage: offering a humane 64GB at the base level and making the 128GB model only $50 more.

Over the course of 2019, we marveled at the level of quality you could get in a long series of relatively inexpensive Android phones. That’s still true today, but those phones will receive three years of updates from Google at most. And as my colleague Chris Welch will argue later today, the iPhone SE sets a bar that the upcoming Google Pixel 4A will have an incredibly difficult time clearing.

Again, we’ll need to review the new iPhone SE and the Pixel 4A to know whether one of them has an advantage with any particular feature (like the camera). So no final judgements here. But I just need to point out that for most of 2018 and 2019, every Android maker has had a bit of a green field to play in: phones that cost less than $500.

Google, Asus, Samsung, and many others did good work in that green field, but now there’s real competition from Apple.

On Tuesday in this newsletter, I had half a thought about these low-cost phones. Forgive me for quoting myself:

Increasingly, I find that “flagship” phones are mainly about luxuries instead of tangible benefits to most people. Those luxuries include screen quality, 5G, wireless charging, face unlock, speed, overall build quality, camera quality, and a smattering of other things.

Will the iPhone SE match the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro on most of those metrics? Nope. But when I wrote that I hadn’t imagined that Apple would use its newest chip. The inclusion of the A13 Bionic means the SE will match the most luxurious phone on speed and on longevity.

I know I’ve now brought up software updates twice now, but it’s super important. $399 spent on this iPhone SE means it’s less likely you’ll be forced to spend another $399 next year or the year after.

There are several things to be bummed about with the iPhone SE 2 — starting with the fact that Apple calls it the “second-generation iPhone SE,” which is a bad name. Eventually we’ll settle on what to call it, but until then prepare for iPhone SE, second-generation iPhone SE, iPhone SE 2, iPhone SE (2020), the new iPhone SE, and probably something I can’t imagine right now. Ugh.

I kid, that’s not really a real problem. Neither is the claim that this is just a “parts bin” phone. Yes, Apple is using a lot of parts that have been bouncing around its product lines for years. But, and I want you to really feel this: who cares? It doesn’t matter how old the parts are if they’re good.

No, there are real issues we know about already just from the basics. For example, this form factor — the same as the iPhone 6 — isn’t especially inspiring. I hate the size of the bezels. It seems like a petty complaint, but reducing them really does change your experience. You get more screen in a smaller body. Plus, it’s something most Android phones accomplished by putting a fingerprint sensor on the back or under the screen.

Speaking of size, this iPhone SE is larger than the last iPhone SE, which means that even ‘small’ phones are big now, as Dan Seifert observed yesterday. Finding a truly good, truly small smartphone is nigh impossible right now.

And though I know many people will tell me to just get over it already, the fact that this low-cost iPhone lacks a traditional headphone jack is a bit of a bummer. Other low-cost Android phones explicitly include them. Bluetooth headphones aren’t just another thing to charge, they’re another thing to buy and another thing that could break.

Apple has a reputation for overcharging for hardware. It’s become a point of contention in the flamewars between Apple, Windows, and Android stans. My take is that sometimes Apple is guilty and sometimes it’s not. The new MacBook Air is a great value. Selling Mac Pro wheels for $699 and literal metal posts for $299 is so incredibly hilarious that even pointing out that it’s become self-parody feels so obvious it’s embarrassing.

On that spectrum, the new iPhone SE (or whatever we decide to call it) is not just a good value for Apple. It’s one of the very best values I’ve seen in the smartphone market in years. In theory, at least: now we just have to test it and see if it lives up to its spec sheet.

More from Apple’s announcements

Apple’s second-gen iPhone SE is here: all the news and details. Here’s a story stream of all of our iPhone SE 2 coverage.

The iPhone SE 2’s camera setup is going to lean on Apple’s software. Jon Porter on how Apple’s advances in image processing are going to be vital to this phone’s success.

Apple’s new iPhone SE doesn’t come with custom U1 locator chip. It’s not in the new iPad Pro with LiDAR either, where you would think it would make sense as the iPad Pro is practically designed for AR and AR development. I don’t know what’s up with the U1 chip (or AirTags), but increasingly it feels like something is weird about the whole thing.

Apple’s new Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro goes up for preorder, ships next week. Here’s something unexpected! Long ago I promised to share my thoughts on the trackpad support in iPadOS but haven’t really finished that thought yet. When I review this, I will.

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I’m not sure the new iPhone SE will blow away that part of the Android market, the 5c, original SE and XR didn’t. It’ll a nod to those who don’t want to pay top dollar who still have rickety old iPhones and Apple wants to keep them locked into iOS ecosystem as much as anything

All the previous "affordable" iPhones have still been priced like an upper mid-range android phone at the time of release. The new SE is being released with a price like a premium budget/mid range Android phone (Pixel 3a/4a comes to mind) and makes very different sacrifices. Don’t forget that iMessage and facetime are very strong, especially in the US.

Yup, as an Android fan the only things on iOS I’m jealous of are iMessage and FaceTime

I’m almost certainly buying this phone for that reason. My entire social network uses iMessage and I’m so tired of the "dad liked an image" texts and ultra low resolution videos. I’m not spending $600+ to get iMessage when I can get everything I need out of a phone from a Pixel 3a (I got for $300 on launch because I’m on Fi). But this? It would take a pretty bad hidden drawback once reviews are out to stop me from getting it.

Aha! So those messages I’m getting that this person "liked xxx" or "emphasized xxx" are coming from people using iMessage. I didn’t realize that.

It works differently on the two platforms. If it’s an iMessage group, the reaction bubble shows up above the message it’s reacting to. If it’s an sms group that reaction shows up as another message in the thread. It’s annoying and doesn’t look right. Apple should disable reaction bubbles for sms group text.

I misunderstood. Got you

Don’t forget that iMessage and facetime are very strong, especially in the US.

iMessage is ONLY strong in the US. Facetime is more popular in other countries but still pales in comparison with Whatsapp, FB Messenger and Skype.

"iMessage is only strong in the US"?? Get out of your bubble dude hahah

It’s true though. I’m in the US. I know and regularly speak to people in:

- Spain
- France
- Scotland
- England
- Brazil
- Lebanon

and other countries. Most of them use iPhones, but all of them use Whatsapp. In fact, when I was in Brazil in December/January, nearly every business had a Whatsapp logo next to their phone number. Even the delivery trucks. Lebanon had protests because the government wanted to tax Whatsapp (which is the primary communication method for people). In [western] Europe, Whatsapp has always reined king. And even when it isn’t Whatsapp, in other parts of the world it’s something like:

- Viber/Whatsapp – Eastern Europe
- Whatsapp – India
- WeChat – China
- LINE – Japan
- KakaoTalk – Korea

iMessage became popular in the US for two big reasons: it became the default communication system over SMS (transparently; iMessage is default), and it’s also a status symbol (blue bubble). If you don’t believe me about the latter, look up "green bubble" memes.

The succes of WhatsApp in Europe by large factor us because of the fact that a lot of us don’t use iPhones (less then 30%) here, while iPhone market share in the USA always sits around 50%… in Europe WhatsApp is the most convenient way to stay in touch with friends and family, mainly due to it being so platform agnostic!

Historically, messaging over data was much cheaper than using SMS/MMS in Europe. In the US it was the opposite, with texting being cheap and then becoming unlimited on just about every plan. Remember, WhatsApp was released in 2009.

So in the US, people were used to texting. On iPhones, it’s via the Messages app. Apple releases iMessage (2011) and makes it so that it’s the default protocol between iPhone users. Most users don’t have a choice since they don’t know they can disable it, nor would they want to. People continue to use the Messages app, and so they’re used to iMessage being the default protocol.

Meanwhile in Europe and the rest of the world, WhatsApp and similar apps have already established themselves. iMessage didn’t make a big splash since it’s Apple-only rather than device-agnostic. That means less iPhone marketshare due to iMessage not being a factor for most people (while the opposite is true in the US and Canada).

I agree! I live in Hong Kong, where people basically only use Samsung and Apple iPhones. But no one uses iMessage. A few weeks ago, my friend, who uses an iPhone, even asked me what iMessage was.

In Hong Kong, we basically only use Whatsapp with friends, Snapchat and Instagram with sharing stuff, Skype for video calls, and KakaoTalk for open chats.

This actually sounds terrible.

Not that much worse than the US where, at least for me, it’s:

- Facebook Messenger (most people, regardless of device)
- WhatsApp (family and friends abroad)
- Instagram (usually just for sharing posts)
- SMS (for the rare friend, usually an iPhone user)

How often are you using Facebook messenger? I have the odd friend sending stuff from that but socially there aren’t many people using that as a primary messenger in my experience.

Even more terrible than being forced to buy an iPhone so you can communicate with your family and friends through a purposeful lock in strategy by Apple?

Who’s forcing you to buy?

Actually… I think you are in a US bubble.

Everyone uses whatsapp outside the US. I have a lot of iPhone owning friends and they all use whatsapp primarily. Hardly anyone I know primarily uses iMessage

This is SO much better than the situation in the US where people are forced to buy from one company just to communicate. I feel bad for people in the US and I hope something can get them out of their misguided love affair with iMessage.

UK here. I have one friend who uses iMessage. She’s in USA. It feels like a throwback as it means I am replying via SMS, which I never use these days otherwise. So I agree, it’s an American throwback SMS bubble.

WhatsApp feels archaic to me personally. The apps looks better with its slick splash screen and dark mode but the Status, Camera, Settings buttons on the bottom remind me of iOS apps from ten years ago. Messages on the iPhone is clean and slick. And since iOS 13 allows people to set up their own Animoji or insert pictures for your own contact card on other people’s phones (with permission) it looks more lively and personalized.

Whatsapp has always had poor design. They are example number one of why "good" design is less important than ease of use and universality.

iMessage has the first but not the second which is why it is a terrible choice.

‘Terrible’ is a bit of an overstatement. It’s perfectly fine, it just doesn’t have the multi platform thing going for it, so countries where iOS has a much lower marketshare adopted something else.

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